Socialist Worker

1917 - when workers shook the world

Issue No. 2578

End to war—Russian and German soldiers embraced and danced on hearing the news from Petrograd

End to war—Russian and German soldiers embraced and danced on hearing the news from Petrograd


The Russian Revolution of October 1917 is the most important event in human history. For centuries ordinary people had dreamed of a world without the rule of emperors, kings, generals and the rich. Some gave their lives fighting for such change.

The October Revolution is the one example where, at least briefly, the people who are normally ruled over became the rulers of a whole country.

Workers began to take control of production. Peasants, treated as their landlords’ disposable property, seized the land.

People who had until then been denied all genuine democratic rights were suddenly debating and arguing and collectively deciding their futures. They were in charge.

As General Zalessky, on behalf of the shattered old regime indignantly said, “Who would believe that the janitor or watchman of the court building would suddenly become chief justice of the court of appeals, or the hospital orderly manager of the hospital, the barber a big functionary, yesterday’s train oiler chief of division or station superintendent, yesterday’s locksmith head of the factory?”

An utterly dictatorial society became the most liberated one.

Equality

Women won legal equality, free abortion and the right to divorce. Homosexuality was legalised. It would be half a century before a weaker version of these rights was won in the “free” democracies of the liberal West such as Britain and France.

And the revolution’s freedoms went much further than what the capitalists had in mind.

Racism and prejudice were thrown back. Jews, so often despised and hunted, helped to lead the new society. Muslims won religious freedom.

And in this new situation people demanded—and won—access to education and culture. In a time of extraordinary hardship and pain the light of liberation and enjoyment started to shine.

Art was dragged from the academy into ordinary people’s lives. As the revolutionary Leon Trotsky put it, “The revolution is in the first place an awakening of human personality in the masses—who were supposed to possess no personality”.

Carnage

Perhaps most dramatically the revolution stopped, for Russians, the carnage of the First World War. It wasn’t a politicians’ peace treaty or overwhelming military defeat that ended the war, it was the action of ordinary people.

That had never happened before. And within a year a revolution inspired by Russia had broken Germany from the war as well.

The October Revolution was often chaotic and uncertain, and there were many mistakes. It involved real people seeking to make a different world with meagre resources.

Across the globe Russia became the shining example to millions and a spur to struggle. But the revolution did not spread, and because of that it was defeated.

Eventually, with the full triumph of Stalinism, the opposite of the hope of October emerged. It became a tyranny directed against workers and peasants that crushed democracy and destroyed the gains of the oppressed.

Today is not 1917. But crucial parts of that experience endure. Capitalism still plunges into periodic crisis, wrecking living standards, destroying lives and stoking up the basis for the far right and fascism.

That system has to go. In 1917 only the revolution could stop the war, bring democracy to the factories and deliver land to the peasants. Today only a revolution can prevent capitalism’s profit drive that brings the threat of environmental devastation.

Armaments

A hundred years ago new military technology was used in a war that killed 20 million people. Today’s armaments, controlled by people who always put profit first, could extinguish life on this planet.

Only a revolution can finally wrest power from them.

Ordinary people produced miracles in 1917. Through their own efforts they toppled a 304 year-old dynasty.

But there were key turning points where political organisation was necessary to push aside those whose horizons were limited to what was possible under the bosses’ system.

In 1917 it needed a revolutionary socialist party, the Bolsheviks. They gave leadership in every workplace and working class area to build confidence and argue a way to win.

There have been many revolutions in the last century. But in the absence of strong revolutionary organisation they have all fallen short of what October achieved.

The revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg saw the essence of the October Revolution. She said the Russian revolutionaries “are still the only ones up to now who can cry with the poet Hutten—“I have dared!”

They did it in October 1917. We must do it again.


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